During President Donald Trump’s first year in office, he had a question for staffers who were briefing him on hurricanes. Why not just bomb them?, he asked, according to Axios.
That seems far-fetched, even for Trump, but the reporters on the item, Jonathan Swan and Margaret Talev, both have a long record of accurate stories on the White House beat, and they also reviewed a National Security Council memo that recorded Trump’s question. On one occasion, Trump suggested dropping a nuclear bomb on a hurricane, a long-circulating crackpot theory. On another occasion, Trump mentioned bombs, just not nuclear ones.
Trump denied the story via tweet, but an aide defended Trump’s questions to Axios. “His goal—to keep a catastrophic hurricane from hitting the mainland — is not bad,” the official said. “What people near the president do is they say, ‘I love a president who asks questions like that, who’s willing to ask tough questions.’”
No wonder the aide was unwilling to put his or her name on that quote. What Trump is asking is not a tough question. It’s a cop-out, the latest example of Trump seeking a silver bullet—or a silver warhead, as the case might be—instead of actually doing the hard work of leading the executive branch. From “Build the wall” to “Repeal and replace” to “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” the president relies on bumper-sticker solutions that tend not to work.
These diversions carry a cost, sometimes a very heavy one. Axios reports that Trump brought up nukes during a hurricane briefing in his first year in office. The 2017 hurricane season would turn out to be the costliest on record. As the destruction brought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands revealed, the federal government was deeply unprepared for a storm of that size. Trump could have been asking his briefers actual tough questions about whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ready for the season, and directing them to stage or deploy additional resources. Instead, he was asking the sorts of queries best reserved for stoned dorm-room sessions.
That lack of focus proved costly. When the eventual, horrifying death toll from Maria was calculated, Trump became furious and denied that his government had made any mistakes.
While hurricane-nuking is the most outlandish example of Trump’s search for silver-bullet solutions, patient zero for this approach to governance is Trump’s border wall. The president has given a few explanations for the need for a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, including stopping the flow of unauthorized immigrants and preventing drugs from entering the country. A wall would stop some immigrants from crossing the border, but sneaking across isn’t the only way to get into the country, and over the past few months, border facilities have been overwhelmed not by people crossing surreptitiously, but by people exercising their lawful right to request asylum. Most drugs enter through official ports.
The wall wasn’t even supposed to be the real solution. Sam Nunberg, an early Trump adviser, told The New York Times earlier this year that the wall was invented as a mnemonic to help the candidate remember to talk about immigration. Yet it’s become a singular obsession for Trump, who evinces no interest in or capacity for policy detail, even as the U.S. government seems to have little plan for handling other immigration problems except deterrence through the harsh handling of migrants.
Trade tells a similar story. There’s widespread agreement by politicians and analysts on both sides of the aisle that China has often been a bad actor in international commerce. The question is how to deal with it. Barack Obama’s administration tried, and largely failed, to orchestrate a large-scale shift in American policy toward China. Then came Trump, promising that with some tough talks and tariffs he could quickly bully Beijing into behaving. In 2018, he infamously declared that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” But as economic turmoil in recent weeks has demonstrated, this is not the case. There’s no shortcut.
There is a growing consensus among some left-of-center commentators that Trump’s behavior is getting worse. These examples are why I’m not convinced. Although it’s only public now, Trump floated the idea of nuking hurricanes back in 2017, and he’s been calling for the wall and tariffs since 2015. What has changed is that the negative effects of his poor judgment are becoming more clear the longer he remains in office. It’s one thing to claim you’re going to start a trade war; it’s another entirely to actually get into one, and to discover that you don’t know how to get out, as Trump sort of acknowledged in a moment of weakness at the G7 summit this weekend.
One of the other big topics at the summit has been climate change—a timely topic as the Amazon burns and the heart of hurricane season approaches. Scientists have found that warming temperatures make hurricanes more intense and damaging. The United States could try to lead efforts on fighting climate change around the world, but Trump aides derided the summit’s focus on warming as a “niche issue,” and the president skipped a working session on climate that the other gathered leaders attended.
Oh, well, there’re always nukes.